After scoring a surprise box office success with his “2016: Obama’s America,” an agitprop portrait of our current U.S. president as a “breathtakingly anti-American” radical, conservative author and sociopolitical commentator Dinesh D’Souza strikes again with “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” a slick, sprawling celebration of American exceptionalism that could, much like its predecessor, make a bundle by rigorously reinforcing the deeply held beliefs and darkest suspicions of its target audience. A well-timed theatrical rollout in major markets during the upcoming July 4 holiday weekend will only enhance this aggressively patriotic documentary’s commercial appeal.
D’Souza sticks fairly close to the same game plan he employed for “2016,” once again sharing writing and directing chores with co-producer John Sullivan, and pulling double duty as narrator and oncamera interviewer. (He also appears here, fleetingly, as a fast-food restaurateur in a comedy sketch intended to illustrate the joys of capitalism.) The big difference in “America” is an abundance of cable TV-style historical re-enactments — sporadic sequences in which actors portray, with varying degrees of success, figures ranging from Abraham Lincoln (a strikingly effective Don Taylor) to Hilary Clinton (a none-too-persuasive Jennifer Pearson).
One such sequence, evidently set in an alternative universe, kicks off the film by dramatizing the fatal shooting of George Washington during a Revolutionary War battle. D’Souza follows this with portentous imagery (including the erasure of Mount Rushmore) and rhetorical questions — like, what if Hitler had developed the atomic bomb first? — that suggest “America” really will imagine what the world would have been like if the colonies had never broken free of British rule.
But no: Despite its provocative title, the film — most of it, at least — is less speculative fiction than impassioned counterpoint. Drawing largely from his own published work, D’Souza offers a point-by-point response to historical revisionists, social activists and community organizers who want to define America as “a predatory colonial power,” and dwell on such unpleasant topics as the decimation of Native Americans, the mistreatment of blacks and Mexicans, and the widening gap between rich and poor in a capitalist society.
To his credit, D’Souza gives screen time to a few interviewees — like Native American rights activist Charmaine White Face — who clearly aren’t buying what he’s selling. For the most part, however, D’Souza gives the impression of someone obsessed with whitewashing any and all dark chapters in U.S. history books.
There are times when his defenses and rationalizations come across as almost laughably facile. Sure, he says, slavery was a bad thing. But, hey, there also were enslaved white people — indentured servants, to be precise — and some Deep South freed blacks who bred and sold slaves. And, yes, racism isn’t very nice. But just look at how a 19th-century African-American lady named C.J. Walker triumphed as a self-reliant capitalist while selling hair-care products and becoming a millionaire.
D’Souza devotes considerable time and energy to scornfully rebuking Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” which he views as positively un-American in its alternative view of the American mythos. Oddly enough, D’Souza displays almost as much contempt for actor Matt Damon, whom he characterizes as a Zinn acolyte and, worse, something of a hypocrite simply for being a highly paid movie star.
“America” shifts gears during its final half-hour, lurching from revisionism of historical revisionism to cautionary speculation. While focusing on the legacy of leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky — depicted here as an apt pupil of Chicago gangsters — he duly notes Alinsky’s influence on Obama’s agenda. But wait, there’s more: D’Souza also gets to take a pre-emptive shot at presumed presidential hopeful Clinton by dramatizing how the one-time “Goldwater girl” was led over the leftie dark side by Alinsky.
Anyone who has kept track of D’Souza’s untidy private life and recent legal difficulties may approach “America” wondering: Will he or won’t he? And as it turns out: Yes, he does indeed acknowledge his arrest and subsequent plea bargain for violation of campaign finance laws.
But D’Souza shrewdly places this acknowledgement in the context of a lengthy final section devoted to dire warnings about increased government surveillance of U.S. citizenry, charges of politically motivated law enforcement, and heavy-handed efforts by prosecutors to wring guilty pleas from defendants with threats of maximum prison sentences. Everything leads to the melodramatic image of a handcuffed D’Souza anxiously cooling his heels in a dank jail cell, hammering home the message: In Obama’s un-American America, this … could … happen … to … you.
By the way: It will be interesting to see how some viewers react to D’Souza’s repeated (and approving) depiction of the Civil War as a noble battle waged by Abraham Lincoln and his Union Army solely to end slavery in the United States. Quite a few far-right, states-rights zealots might beg to differ with that view of American history.
Tech values are polished across the board, with composer Bryan E. Miller earning special credit for his genuinely stirring opening theme.